Feel better with a book … why bibliotherapy may be just the medicine we’re looking for

By Morwen Johnson

It’s not just dedicated bookworms or librarians who get excited that Christmas means piles of book-shaped parcels under the Christmas tree (and time to read them too!). Books are the second most popular Christmas gift for adults in the UK, behind chocolate. But now we’re into the New Year it’s worth remembering that books are for life, not just for Christmas. And the benefits of books go much further than keeping your brain active and passing the time.

Reading involves ‘emotional thinking’ and in the words of The Reader, books “are full of the stuff that makes us human”. That means that they can be a powerful resource for improving mental health.

“I felt better than before … I felt understood”

We’ve written a couple of times on our blog about social prescribing – and how the NHS is recognising that non-medical treatments such as arts activities or gardening can improve mental and physical health. The use of bibliotherapy and self-help reading is part of this focus on holistic health and self-management of long-term or chronic health conditions. And a recent systematic review has added to the evidence base, finding that bibliotherapy is effective in reducing adults’ depressive symptoms in the long-term, “providing an affordable prompt treatment that could reduce further medications”.

The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.

Books can be recommended by GPs or other health professionals but are also available on self-referral for anyone to borrow, as part of public libraries’ health offer. Similar schemes can be accessed in other parts of the UK.

And the social enterprise The Reader has many years’ experience of how shared reading groups and reading aloud projects can be used to increase health and wellbeing.

The healing power of imagination and creativity

It’s not just self-help books which can help improve health – reading fiction and poetry can also help. The author Philip Pullman recently said that comfort can be found in books, and the familiar act of reading, in an uncertain world. And Blake Morrison, writing back in 2008 on fledgling bibliotherapy initiatives, quoted Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as saying how, in the presence of great literature, “it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own”.

The unique value of fiction is that we can recognise aspects of our own lives in the characters and imaginary worlds of books and in many cases, narratives of change, of transformation, of recovery, can provide comfort or hope. In other situations, books can literally put into words, difficult experiences which people struggle to admit or talk about. They can also promote understanding of other people’s situations, very different to our own.

This is true not just in literary works –acclaimed graphic novels and memoirs have shone a light on topics such as the experience of psychosis (Look Straight Ahead), cancer (When David Lost His Voice; and Probably Nothing); eating disorders (Lighter Than My Shadow); OCD (The Bad Doctor); childhood anxiety (Everything is Teeth) and grief (The End).

And children’s publishing is also a medium for helping children process difficult emotions or experiences –for example Duck, Death and the Tulip is visually beautiful and heartfelt. For anyone interested in how books can help children’s mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a useful online resource list of books for children and also for teenagers.

A lifeline and a consolation

It’s worth remembering the important role that libraries play in supporting wellbeing. As well as supporting bibliotherapy initiatives, public libraries are safe spaces which people who are isolated, lonely or ill can come to for support and to make connections. Research for the Arts Council estimated that these improvements to health save the NHS around £27.5million a year.

Reading is not just a leisure activity. For many people, the information and stories found in books – whether bought, borrowed from libraries, or shared between friends – can provide a lifeline.

In the words of Daisy Goodwin, introducing her book 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, “there may not be a cure, but there is always a consolation”.


The Knowledge Exchange are a team of researchers and librarians based in Glasgow, who comment on and curate information on social policy.

You can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. There may also be a few book-related quotes occasionally!

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